The concept of flavor and preservation reached Europe around the time of the Roman Empire. By the first century AD, Rome had a thriving trade in spices, and pepper was one of its most prized possessions. It had become such a valuable good that, during the fifth century when the empire was in decline and almost invaded by the barbaric Visigoths, the Romans offered 3,000 pounds of pepper to buy back their city.
Like the Romans many centuries before me, I felt as if I introduced flavor into my palette for the first time on a recent trip to France. In Paris’s eleventh arrondissement, I ate a famous dish of boeuf au poivre in the small, yet renowned, Bistrot Paul Bert.
When I asked the waitress what was in the sauce, she looked at me dumbfounded and slowly enunciated the terms au poivre with her finger on the menu, as if she were teaching a child how to read. When the waitress dashed off, I turned my eyes to the middle of the table and stared confusingly at the wooden pepper grinder: that’s it?
For years, I thought of pepper as the last resort for bad food when salt was not doing the trick. But after Bistrot Paul Bert, not only did I crave to taste the peppercorn sauce again, I wanted to make my own boeuf au poivre.
After an early trip to the nearest market, I began preparing the recipe by setting two tablets of boeuf bouillon into boiling water. With tear-filled eyes, I chopped one onion and one shallot, threw them into the broth, and stirred while adding some fresh herbs and three cow bone fragments. Then, I let the broth stew and began grinding the peppercorns. When I released the peppercorns from the épicier’s brown bag, I admired their appearance; they were the color of tall grass in an untamed field. In a silver bowl, I carried the peppercorns from the countertop to the stove while they swayed side to side, as if dancing—but their waltz ended as soon as they were crushed into dust.
Afterwards, I poured 200 microliters of the stewed broth into the skillet and mixed it with 150 microliters of butter and 150 microliters of heavy cream. Finally, when the sauce began to get thicker, I added the last ingredient: a handful of pressed green peppercorns. I took a deep breath and gave myself a little pat on the back before picking up the wooden spoon to taste my creation.
Closing my eyes and touching the spoon with my tongue, I expected to be transported to the bistrot. Instead, 3,000 pounds of pepper punched, kicked, and tore off my tastebuds. My nose began to run, and I started panting like a dog. The words, hot, hot, hot, were all I could utter.
Just when I was about to give up, I looked at the raw morceaux des boeuf and decided to season them with salt, three tablespoons of olive oil, and 10 microliters of butter. Turning the steaks on the stove four to six times, I wanted to leave them as tender as possible but not too bloody. Once the meat was finished, it was pink and moist like the one at Bistrot Paul Bert.
I looked at the meat satisfied but understood that I had not done the pepper sauce justice. I thought of her, the French waiter pointing at the menu, and started anew. I poured the broth, sobbed over the onions and shallots, measured the cream and butter, put a dash of cognac and wine for luck, and added 50 microliters of green pepper instead of a handful. The new sauce simmered and thickened as cold sweat ran down my back and my stomach growled.
After giving the wooden spoon a final turn, I pulled it up to my lips, hesitated, and, finally, had a taste. I suddenly felt the weight of 3,000 pounds of peppers off my shoulders, and heard the deep, rowdy screams of the Romans and all the waiters at Bistrot Paul Bert cheering triumphantly. We had won back our city.